Monday, June 29, 2009

Speaking of death...

Two books that came off my "to read" shelf and were quickly enjoyed, both keepers. First was Mistress of the Art of Death, which I put off reading a while ago because it didn't suit my mood at the time. This time, I flew through it, basically finishing it in two days.

Historical mysteries are a favorite genre of mine - this one also had historical *medicine* which is another favorite. Now make the lead character a woman doctor-sleuth and give her a couple of decent companions and a rich background - it's a grand combination. Some fairly typical additions - the love-interest-who-starts-off-as-a-suspect, the nasty-obvious-suspect-who-didn't-do-it-but-we-hate-anyway, and it still entertained. I put the rest of the series on my wish list to investigate later.

And to match the Mistress of Death, who else, but the first Death Knight himself, Arthas? Warcraft novelizations have suffered from every sin of media novelization and then added some. First sin? Assume anyone reading the books is nine. Several of the books are SO simplistic, and so packed with stereotypes, cliches and very lame attempts at dialogue it made me want to go find the author and personally beat them about the head with a copy of The Hobbit. Bound in steel.

Second sin? Pay no attention to the source material OR be so slavishly devoted to it that anyone who has actually played the game would say..."But I know all of this!"

For example, Richard Knaak is one of the more prolific WOW hacks, and we are all the worse off for it. The man needs a thesaurus, fast. Every dragon is "a behemoth." Repeatedly. Knaak manages to disregard almost every aspect of magic in the actual games. His mages either perform tiny cantrips which manage to annoy the enemy, or they hurl huge fireballs. The spell mechanics of the game, which are ripe for plundering, are completely ignored. Knaak has no problem writing a gory scene of arms being ripped off or chests being torn open, but can't write a love scene without adolescent sniggering going on in the background.

I mean it, he really pissed me off in his depiction of the love triangle between three of the games uber-characters. We're talking the master of all the druids, the high priestess of the goddess of the night elves and a chief villian for over ten thousand years, and it reads like a junior high school drama. Complete with elbow nudging from supporting characters. I kept waiting for one of them to ask someone to pass a note. (Malfurian to Tyrande: Do u like me? Y or N?)

Naturally, to Knaak fell the task of writing one of the biggest epics of the Warcraft storyline. It's enough to make me ponder the wisdom in writing adult fiction. Maybe I should have gone into gaming novels.

Anyhoo, Arthas: Rise of the Lich Kingis written by Christie Golden, who has written Ravenloft and Star Wars novels. She wrote two previous Warcraft titles, Lord of the Clansand Rise of the Horde. Lord of the Clans was problematic because of a weakness in the source material, but I found the writing pretty good. Rise of the Horde was better. Arthas would be her first foray into writing about the Alliance, and I was more than curious to see whether the sympathy she obviously had for the Horde would flavor her Alliance characterizations.

I think this is the best Warcraft book yet. Naturally, that doesn't say much - it's still a genre inside a genre. Its limitations are pretty clear, and for this one, it is absolute devotion of the source material. Almost every cut scene from the games is here in text, for example. But for some reason, this didn't annoy me - possibly because these scenes have become part and parcel of the story of Arthas. We need to see him waving his men away from trying to save the young Jaina Proudmore as she blasts her way through the Plaguelands. The friendly confidence he had in her and her magical powers were not only scene setters - they indicated the level of trust and affection between the characters.

But about half way through the book, I began to look forward to spotting in-game references. Even certain lines one hears from famous characters come to life here; for once, Sylvanas makes sense when she asks, "What are we, but slaves to this torment?"

Golden walked the line between devotion and creativity quite successfully for my taste. Her characters sound more realistic than they ever have in previous novelizations, and the slow deterioration of Arthas' morality is a satisfying glimpse into a descent into panic, fear, and ultimately, madness. She even managed to add new elements into his story which, importantly, not only do not contradict established lore but actually make it deeper and richer. That is what a good novelization does; that is what an author brings to the table.

My only regret was that the complete story could not be told in one volume. The book itself was also handsomely name, cloth bound with a striking dustcover. Well worth it for Warcraft fans - unlikely to win many fans who come to it cold, though.

But I'll tell you this - it made me want to make a new death knight, just to interact with Arthas in game again.

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